DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - When Sean Brennan opened the doors to The Pie Hole in the Arts District on Oct. 18, he knew he was on to a good thing. Still, he was unprepared for the response.
By noon on opening day, Brennan and his business partners, Matt Heffner and Rebecca Grasley, had sold out of their first batch of pecan, peanut butter pretzel and other pies. The second batch was depleted by 4:30 p.m.
"Demand has increased every day," said Brennan last week during a visit to his Traction Avenue bakery and cafe. "We can't make enough of anything right now."
Brennan isn't the only one learning about Downtown's appetite for fresh-baked sweets and breads. At least seven baked-goods purveyors have opened since the summer of 2009, with four of them firing up their ovens in the last two months.
Shops like The Pie Hole, MF Gourmet at Grand Central Market, the Historic Core's Semi Sweet Bakery and a revamped Clifton's bakery aren't breaking any new ground. Downtown's stalwarts include Chinatown's Queens Bakery, which has been selling its rice puffs since 1961, Phoenix Bakery, in business since 1938, and Gourmet L.A. Bakery, a 22-year-old Broadway business that caters to a mostly Latino clientele.
Those involved with the current group of bakeries say the new sweet fixation is just part of Downtown's emergence as a restaurant destination. The arrival of the trendy eateries followed the rush of residential developments, and the area bakers see themselves as the next step in the logical line. They say that despite the skyscrapers and traffic, Downtown feels like a small town, with an active community that wants everything within walking distance.
With its purple brick façade, wooden tables and metal chairs, The Pie Hole offers sweet pies like apple and lemon curd meringue. They also serve savory pies meant as lunch meals - they include braised short rib and carnitas versions. They bake about 16 whole pies and 100 individual savory pies each day. The sweet pies are sold by the slice, although pies can be ordered whole as well.
Pie Hole is similar to, but still different than, the other new arrivals. MF Gourmet, which opened in September, focuses on artisan breads such as ciabatta and baguettes. Semi Sweet, whose first day was Oct. 25, is a pastry driven shop. Babycakes delivers vegan cupcakes and other goods, Big Man Bakes concentrates on cupcakes and Hygge offers Danish pastries in South Park.
The Downtown Los Angeles arrivals are reflective of what's occurring nationally with bakeries, industry leaders say.
While they don't keep tabs on the number of bakeries that open, Susan Nicolais, executive director of the Louisiana-based Retail Bakers of America, said that in the last couple of years there has been a decrease in "full-line" bakeries that offer a variety of goods for both the public and wholesale. At the same time, she said, small independent bakeries, particularly ones specializing in specific items such as pies, breads and cupcakes, have increased.
"It's a lot more expensive to make a large line of product, so we're seeing fewer and fewer full-line bakeries and more of the specialty bakery shops opening, the ones you see in a corner store," she said.
She noted that the arrival before the holidays also fits with industry traditions - that is the prime season for most bakeries.
"It certainly is a good time to open their doors," Nicolais said.
Children of the Maple Glazed
If any one person deserves the blame, or credit, for the Downtown baked goods trend, it may be Sharlena Fong. She was the pastry chef at Main Street's Nickel Diner in 2008 and invented several desserts that grabbed the attention of food lovers in the city. The most popular was the maple glazed bacon donut, which became a hit on food blogs and was featured on TV news shows.
The reaction convinced her that Down town was ready for more bakeries. So with business partners Dennis Hunter and James Gonzales, Fong opened Semi Sweet Bakery in the Historic Core.
"After all the support I got from the locals it made me want to do it here," she said.
Semi Sweet doesn't resemble a small town bakery. It's squeezed between Pussy & Pooch, a boutique pet store, and Las Perlas, a tequila bar. The Sixth Street space is a blend of tradition and urbanity, with light blue walls, cement floors, vintage furniture and a large display window.
The most popular item is the maple bacon sticky bun, a cousin to the bacon donut. Other items include orange chiffon cake and ding-a-lings (inspired by Ding Dongs) in red velvet, vanilla, peanut crunch and hazelnut. They stand out for their rich chocolate exterior, which plays against the fresh cream.
As with Pie Hole, the crowds are coming. Fong said the bakery produces about 300 items a day, and that by closing time, almost everything is sold.
While Pie Hole and Semi Sweet are satisfying Downtown's sugar aficionados in emerging residential neighborhoods, MF Gourmet has a different approach and a decidedly old-school home. Located near the Broadway side of Grand Central Market, it's drawing crowds for its fresh breads.
Tyler Cyre, a former executive sous-chef at the recently shuttered Downtown Italian eatery Zucca, opened the business because he saw a niche in the local food service industry.
"I was always disappointed with the quality of bread I would get," he said. "There was no flavor, it stretches, it doesn't break."
Cyre learned about baking during his studies at the French Culinary Institute. When looking for a place to open his business, he stumbled on the 700-square-foot spot at Grand Central Market.
He bakes about 1,000 loaves of bread a week, including baguettes, brioche, sourdough, ciabatta and pumpernickel. He also bakes a few muffins, scones, cookies and seasonal tarts. One of his bigger sellers is hamburger buns - he makes 5,000 a week and sells them to walk-up customers as well as Downtown restaurants such as Traxx and Perch.
Like the other Downtown bakers, Cyre thinks the demand is a natural evolution of the community.
"I think Downtown is ready," he said. "As more people move down here, there is demand for better food."
The batch of new baked-goods items prompts questions of whether there is too much competition, and whether the audience can keep growing. Those involved in the sector are confident that there is still room for more.
Erin McKenna, who opened Babycakes in early 2010, said business has been steady since the vegan bakery began serving on Sixth Street. Although a lack of parking and streets closed due to film shoots sometimes reduce foot traffic, in general she continues to draw customers from the growing interest in Downtown and the residential base in the area.
"It has a lot to do with so many more restaurants, bars and cafes rolling the dice on Downtown and contributing to its livelihood," she wrote in an email. "Anything interesting that is happening with food in L.A. right now is happening Downtown, so it's a great community to be a part of."
What's more, the trend shows no sign of slowing. Andrew Meieran has refurbished the bakery in Clifton's Cafeteria, the Broadway landmark he acquired last year and is reinventing. He has upgraded the 10,000-square-foot bakery on the fourth floor with new equipment and plans to bring back some old favorites. An opening was slated for Nov. 5 (after Los Angeles Downtown News went to press) with goods being sold on the ground floor.
"Everything is going back to original recipes," Meieran said. "The brioche, baguettes, artisan rolls, muffins, original baked goods like pies, pumpkin pies like grandma used to make. It's all going to be classic Clifton's."
While Meieran plans on serving a large number of Downtown residents, as well as tourists and businesses, the new bakers say there is room for everyone in the neighborhood.
Brennan for example, doesn't consider the other bakeries as competitors. The biggest challenges right now, he said, are keeping up with demand, and living up to people's memories of the pies grandma used to make.
Contact Richard Guzmán at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Something in the Oven
A Rundown of Downtown’s New Sweet and Bread Purveyors
1106 S. Hope St., (213) 995-5022
Opened: July 2009
Serves: Danish pastries, cakes and bread
Big Man Bakes
413 S. Main St., (213) 617-9100
633 W. Fifth St., (213) 622-2127
Opened: October 2009
130 E. Sixth St., (213) 623-5555
Opened: January 2010
Serves: Vegan cupcakes, cakes, cookies, muffins
Grand Central Market,
317 S. Broadway, (213) 625-1229
Opened: Sept. 1
Serves: Bread, lunch items
The Pie Hole
714 Traction Ave., (213) 537-0115
Opened: Oct. 18
105 E. Sixth St., (213) 228-9975
Opened: Oct. 25
Serves: Pastries, desserts
Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria
648 S. Broadway, (213) 627-1673
Reopened Nov. 5
Serves: Pies, bread, pastries
©Los Angeles Downtown News.